The Future and Other Fictions

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Book review: Scales of Empire (Dragon empire trilogy 1) – by Kylie Chan

51eAOOZaHgL._UY250_Kylie Chan’s fantasy novels – White Tiger, Red Phoenix, Black Jade and a bunch of other colours – are endemic to bookshops at present. I haven’t yet read any of Chan’s work but the novels all bear stunning covers and are, apparently, well-regarded, and it was only a matter of time before I caved into the pressure and bought one.

Thank goodness, then, for the Never Never Book Box subscription, for which the centrepiece novel of its March box is Chan’s newest, Scales of Empire. The first in a new trilogy of space-opera epic science fiction, the cover is just as spectacular as we have come to expect from Harper Collins and the back-cover text promises much.

Corporal Jian Choumali is on the mission of a lifetime – security officer on one of Earth’s huge generation ships, fleeing Earth’s failing ecosystem to colonise a distant planet.
The ship encounters a technologically and culturally advanced alien empire, led by a royal family of dragons. The empire’s dragon emissary offers her aid to the people of Earth, bringing greater health, longer life, and faster-than-light travel to nearby stars.
But what price will the people of Earth have to pay for the generous alien assistance?” (from Amazon –

<spoilers follow>

What a pity that the back cover text and the spectacular cover do not represent the quality of the story inside. Reading the back cover, one is led to expect a hard sci-fi story about the struggles of a generation ship, deep intrigue of interplanetary politics, and potential conflict with alien cultures. Instead, we get a largely Earth-bound story about gender-fluid sex. Much of the cover text is flat-out wrong: the touted “generation ship” never launches, Earth’s “failing ecosystem” is magically repaired about sixty pages into the book, and the aliens come to Earth, rather than encountering the ship.

Misleading cover text is hardly a new thing or a hanging offence. More problematic is Chan’s prose style. Chan writes in first-person and a breathless train of consciousness, which might work for some authors, but she does it with virtually no exposition. I’ve seen writing advice from popular authors that this is the current fashion – to avoid description or introspection in favour of action, action and more action.

But you need to have something happen for that action to be important. There have to be stakes, and this is the novel’s great failing. There are no clear antagonists. What stakes there might have been get waved away by magic technology early on in the book.

Climate change has decimated the Earth – population has fallen to about a billion. Seas have risen and claimed large portions of the landmass. Nation-blocs are at each other’s throats, and mankind itself is on a decline towards extinction, leading to the need for generation ships. The first 30-odd pages of the novel are about the main character’s recruitment to the colony ship program and they do a fair job of sketching a civilisation in decline.

But then the aliens appear and everything changes. In short order the climate is restored, landmasses reclaimed, and humanity has been provided with technology, health, and offers of assistance for interplanetary colonisation efforts.

The planet’s temperature is decreased (magically and without fanfare, “offscreen” – a character simply says that it’s happened) and the ice caps recover, so suddenly there’s heaps of land again. If the environmental threat to the planet and species was the main driver of stakes here, then it’s over by quarter of the way through the book.

Chan wants to focus instead on the aliens and their intentions for Earth. Apparently the aliens are completely benevolent – but do they have an ulterior motive for their help? It takes almost two thirds of the novel before any real danger or challenge appears – to the main characters, or to the autonomy of Earth and its governments. Before this, there’s nothing for the characters to overcome, no stakes.

Kylie Chan spends far more time talking about the main characters having sex (or refusing to have sex) with dragons, than she does talking about nation states or interplanetary intrigue. It becomes a major plot point whether dragons deliberately or naturally inspire unthinking devotion in other species, and the overarching theme of the novel is about free will, and how it interacts with needing assistance from others.

If the novel’s primary failings are thematic, it doesn’t help that it’s so poorly written or edited. Chan has a real problem with telling, rather than showing. Constantly we are told how people are feeling or what their motivations are, rather than inferring this from their dialogue or actions. The narrator / main character is a telepath and possibly she is able to sense some of this – emotions, attempts to mislead – but it’s still bad writing for the reader to be told about someone’s emotions rather than shown them. And if we’re not being told flatly what characters are feeling, events are being described in dialogue – but it’s bad dialogue.

“Alien invasion! Look at the size of that ship! It just popped into existence next to the Brittania.” That’s the way Chan introduces the arrival of an alien emissary, the first time humans have ever encountered extraterrestrial life – by having an unnamed extra character announce its appearance.

The aliens themselves are unconvincing in the extreme. Chan fills her book with dragons (never described – are we talking Chinese dragons, Tolkien dragons, Komodo dragons?) and humanoid cats. She then adds feathered dinosaurs, giant slugs and “an alien very much like a three-metre-long six-legged Old English sheepdog” (complete with wagging tail and predilection for chasing things). The aliens all speak in modern vernacular. The eight-hundred year old princess dragon emissary sounds like a teenager: “Nah, I think I’ll stick with these two. Richard’s hot and Jian’s super-smart. Lead on.” The amount of time the princess dragon spends talking about “love” (which is totally not just about sex, although yes, it’s really about sex) rather than the way the Empire works or is governed, just makes her seem immature.

A great deal of the text is written in passive voice. Laser beams shoot through space, rather than people or ships firing them. People fall dead, and the reader has to reverse-engineer what just happened to them because nowhere in the text does it say that someone fired a weapon. On far too many occasions I had to re-read a passage in order to identify who was doing what to whom, and sometimes it wasn’t even clear after detailed consideration.

There are major problems with the plot. The novel begins as a Japanese generation ship, launched 300 years earlier, is approaching its destination. So the Japanese have sent their ship on a 300-year journey, and the other nations don’t think to send their own ships (to different destinations) until they hear the results? By the time the other nations are getting ready to launch, it’s clear that the Japanese ship / colony has failed, so what were the other nations waiting for? If the threat to their nations is that dire that evacuation of the Earth is important, why wait three hundred years? The dragons appear with an offer of assistance and suddenly every nation and its dog is putting together a colony ship and will be ready to go in months?

The seas have risen and people exist on mountainsides and artificial terraced islands, growing water-crops like rice and coffee. Yet water is rationed and you can’t even have baths/regular showers. We have desalination technology now in the 21st century. The date of this novel is not given but at one point the dragons (magically and without fanfare) reset the CO2 in the atmosphere to “mid twenty-second century levels”.

The technology throughout the book is entirely inconsistent. In the hundreds of years between the 21st century and whenever this book is set (sometime after the 22nd century, and at least 300 years from the near future) mankind has not developed aquatic cities, interplanetary or moon colonies, convincing prosthetics or gene technology, all things that are currently under active development. Kylie Chan has clearly done a modicum of research in a few areas – the requirements for a generation ship project and some of the detail of the interplanetary colonies that get founded during the story show a grasp of detail. But this level of detail is scant. For most of the novel, there appears to be no clear or consistent understanding of what the near future will actually be like. Military officers still carry ‘revolvers’.

The novel goes out of its way to describe a sexually-fluid society. The main character Choumali has a wife and a husband and this is unremarkable. Yet the other main human character gets shocked and dismayed when he learns that the dragon emissary has multiple spouses and children.

The ending is just as risible as the opening. The denouement of the story revolves around a highly effective non-lethal weapon that can be used against one of the antagonists of the story, the aforementioned humanoid cats. The dragons are a peaceable race that prefer not to fight, and run from any engagement. Apparently, though, so do every other race of beings in this vast dragon empire. We’re supposed to believe that among trillions of sentient beings and thousands of years of scientific development, humanity is the only one to have developed non-lethal weaponry? The host of intelligent races that make up the Empire hail the arrival of humans as the salvation of their many different peoples, as if Mankind’s warlike past is somehow unique. Yet the Dragon empire has been visiting the planet for millennia to shape the development of Mankind. Couldn’t they have picked up a stock of rubber bullets on one of their previous visits?

There are some interesting concepts on display here, the most intriguing being the idea of spaceships being little more than cargo holds that their dragon pilots drag with them. The dragons can ‘fold’ through space, instantly teleporting themselves and whatever they’re holding to another place. Combine this with the idea that dragons can procreate with other species, and their part-human descendants could then pilot spacecraft, and you have the possibility for drama as Earth officials try to balance the ethics and practical considerations of breeding part-humans for a specific purpose. Other species have faster-than-light travel, but this is still far slower than the dragons – a single interstellar journey, which might take a week in relativistic time (for the pilot) takes decades from an external perspective. Probably the most promising element of the book is the sentient AI Marque, even if its capabilities do sometimes verge on being a deus ex machina – I would expect to learn more about Marque in the next books in the series.

These interesting concepts, married with a space-operatic story full of dragons, telepaths, murderous felines and space colonies (and lots and lots of gender-fluid sex) should have resulted in a fun, thought-provoking read. Unfortunately the amateur prose and the failure of the author to fulfil the primary function of a novel – to convincingly convey the narrative of the story – makes it a hard slog. The first in a new trilogy, I won’t be hurrying to pick up the sequel.


The Orichalcum Hive-Mind

Gavin stood on the edge of emptiness and let vertigo roll over him.

In truth the plate-glass window overlooking the central plaza was inches thick and could take the weight of a thousand men, but he enjoyed the sensation of being suspended over infinity. The Residence was five hundred stories or more high – every time he thought he had its measure he would meet someone else from a floor he had not known existed. Sometimes he wondered if there was a practical limit at all; perhaps the City really was endless, and if you could find an elevator to take you all the way up you’d find your way back to where you started. One day, he thought, he might try.

Somewhere, far below, ten million men were going about their lives. When he considered them, he felt like a cog in a vast machine. Every day he would ride the elevator down to Ground 85, and every evening he would ride the elevator back up. His shift for today had ended an hour ago, hundreds of men on the next shift entering the Processors as he made his way out. The Processors generated food and air and power for the City and they never stopped. Day followed day and shift followed shift, and he grew older. One day he would be replaced. And the City would go on.

There was a knock on the door.

He had never had a visitor. Why should he? He was just a worker; every day he ate his ration, went to work in the Processors, made his way home, ate, and slept. What interest could anybody have in him?

He thought for a moment about the appropriate response. Clothes. He had dumped today’s clothes in the clean-chute when he got back to his apartment. Opening the wardrobe he took down a fresh pink tunic and shrugged into it; the yellow tunics hung at the end of the rail, as ever untouched. He didn’t even know why they were there, he would never wear them. Once, years ago, he had dumped them all into the waste disposal; the Controller hadn’t taken the hint and the next morning his wardrobe was restocked again with equal numbers of yellow and pink, all pristine and fresh-laundered.

There was a man at the door dressed in yellow. This was almost as unusual as the knock had been. This was a Pink area; over ninety percent of the inhabitants of this level were Pink. The man gave no sign that he had even registered the door was open. The man’s eyes were blank, unseeing. “Hello?” Gavin ventured experimentally.

The man in yellow’s hands lashed out and wrapped around Gavin’s throat.

The two of them went barrelling back into the apartment, and far from yellow and pink, Gavin’s world was going grey. And then the hands at his throat were gone and the man in yellow flopped aside; brilliant red leaked from his scalp. Another man stood over Gavin, and this man was neither yellow nor pink. He was dressed all in grey, and that was impossible.

“I’m sorry. I came as soon as I could,” the grey man said.

“Who are you?” Gavin demanded, getting to his feet and rubbing his bruised throat. “What do you want with me?”

“My name is Herald. I’m from the Grey Men. And you,” said the man in grey, “are our best and only hope. The lives of millions of people rely on you tonight.”

And that, of course, was the most impossible of all.


“You’ve got the wrong man,” he said as they rode the elevator down. Herald had insisted Gavin use his ident to operate the lift, as he didn’t have one of his own. This at least was something Gavin could believe; the Grey Men were ghosts and legends, and ghosts didn’t have idents. “I’m just a worker. I’m not a Protector.”

“If you were a Protector, I wouldn’t be within ten miles of you,” Herald said. “There’s no mistake. It didn’t have to be you specifically, you just happened to be one of the first attacked. You were fortunate I was following.”

Gavin was wearing a grey top over his tunic, obscuring his colour. Herald had told him, It may soon become unpleasant on the streets for those in pink, and we can’t afford the time. Gavin didn’t understand this. There was nothing about this he really understood. The lift was descending, far below Ground 85. Deeper than he had ever gone. He watched as they passed Ground 12. As if in reflection of his earlier thoughts, their descent seemed endless. “Where are you taking me?” he asked.

“We’ve going to see Sol,” Herald told him. “In the Undercroft.”

The Undercroft – the subterranean world that delved deep underneath the City, filled with Creepers and miscreants and Grey Men, was as much a legend as the Greys themselves, so Gavin thought this seemed perfectly consistent. “I’m just a worker,” he said stubbornly. “It’s not even my shift.”

The Undercroft was much like the Processors, Gavin found. The same cramped, narrow corridors; the same spacious chambers full of arcane equipment; the same ubiquitous strip lighting. But where the Processors were stuffed to overflowing with workers, the Undercroft was empty – Gavin barely saw a soul as they walked. And where the Processors were sterile and light and clean, the Undercroft was dark and dank, slime dripping off the walls.

Sol turned out to be a grizzled old man, with the kind of beard you could never get away with above ground. He met them, flanked with two other Grey Men, in one of the open chambers, his voice echoing in the hollow. The chamber had been converted into a garage of sorts, hovercars and trikes lined up in neat rows. “I’m sorry for the brusque welcome,” Sol said as Gavin entered. “I would have preferred to meet you more formally and with more time in hand, but things are falling apart out there and we need to move quickly if we’re to prevent wholesale slaughter.”

“I don’t understand what’s going on,” said Gavin. “What slaughter?”

“I’ll explain on the way,” said Sol. Herald and Sol’s acolytes shepherded Gavin into the back seat of a hovercar; he was joined in the rear seat by Herald and the old man. As the vehicle smoothly and silently accelerated away, Sol made good on his promise. “It begins, and ends, with the City. You see, the City is not a city at all. It’s a giant experiment in artificial intelligence.

“The experiment is intended to force the whole City to decide between the Idea and the Possibility; to declare for pink or for yellow.”

“Don’t be stupid,” said Gavin. “Pink is so much better. Pink makes us stronger, faster, better.”

“And yet,” said Herald, “just minutes ago a man in yellow was within moments of killing you. Can you explain that?”

Sol laid a wrinkled hand on the younger man’s arm. “What Herald is trying to say is that there is no practical difference at all. All yellows believe the same of their colour as you just asserted for pink. What might surprise you more, is that people can change their allegiance over time. The experiment is all about the way in which that change can occur.”

Gavin listened in growing incomprehension as the old man talked. Snatches of his explanation rang true. “All citizens are implanted with their ident at birth,” was one statement that he could agree with. But the old man continued with: “The ident is a way for the Controller to keep track of the populace and where they go. Without idents, the Grey Men are limited in where we can go and what we can do. We can get to the Ground levels, but we don’t have access to the Residences or the Centre.”

“How can you not have idents?” Gavin asked.

“Sometimes children are born who will never be able to work. Others meet with mischance and lose their abilities. Sooner or later, all such end up down here. We take them in as Grey Men.”

The Undercroft walls were flashing by the windows, innumerable chambers and passages all tending upwards, as Sol explained that the ‘experiment’ would be over when all of the people of the City wore the same colour. “When the experiment ends, it is our belief that the Controller is programmed to shut down the City. Along with everyone in it. Until then, the City will go on – as it has for hundreds of years. We know this, because here in the Undercroft there are records, dating from before the earliest histories. We think that the Undercroft is another City, another experiment, completed ages ago. When it was done, the Builders built the City – our City – on the ruins of the old one.”

“So what do you want with me?” Gavin asked.

“Freedom,” said Sol. “Self-determination. We want to shut the whole damn thing down – we can’t allow the experiment to come to an end.”

“We need to destroy the Controller without the experiment ending,” said Herald. “Destroy the Controller, we end the experiment without ending the City.”

Gavin frowned. “Life isn’t so bad as it is. Yellow and pink are closely matched. It doesn’t sound like it’s all going to fall down overnight.”

“That’s where you’re wrong,” said Herald.

“We’re out of time. That man who attacked you is one of the first. Everything has changed.” Sol took up the story. “One locus of the Controller has found a solution to the impasse. Through the ident, it is able to directly control its people. If it can’t persuade the Pinks to change, it will eliminate them.” The car was exiting the underground now, turning onto a ground plaza. Gavin watched in horror as the view out of the car’s windows became clear. The city was burning, and all around he could see violence.

“It’s begun,” said Sol. “Yellow will decimate Pink. Soon enough, the imbalance will become critical. It will be a genocide. Yellow will win, and the City ends.”

“Unless you can destroy the Controller,” Gavin guessed.

“Unless we can destroy the Controller,” said Sol.

“And that’s why you have to help us get in,” said Herald.


The Centre was a pillar of chrome that stretched into the sky like an accusing finger. The size of a city block, it anchored the centre of the City like a spindle. As Gavin and Herald left the hovercar behind and started across the open ground towards the base of the Centre, Gavin could see the mayhem around him escalating. There, a small group of yellows armed with metal poles were ambushing pinks as they exited the Processors. There, a yellow man armed with a knife chased an older man dressed in pink up the road; the man in pink stumbled, and the end was quick. Elsewhere, a team of zombie yellows were laying explosives at the base of a Residence. Gavin wanted to go and interrupt them, but Herald caught his arm. “Leave it,” he said. “They haven’t seen you yet, but if they catch a glimpse of pink under that shirt we gave you then we’re both dead. This will all cease if we succeed.”

“Let’s be quick then,” said Gavin.

As they approached the giant silver needle, Herald continued his exposition. “We need your ident to get into the Centre – it will open for a Resident. The experiment is designed to be self-limiting. But without idents, we’ve been unable to get access.”

“You can’t make your own idents?” Gavin asked.

“We are few in number, and we have limited resources. But the most critical resource of all is orichalcum, a metal with unique resonance properties. It ties the people together into one big neural net and connects them to the loci in the Controller. And of this metal, we have none at all. It does not exist within the City – except in trace amounts within the ident chips. Even were we to retrieve ident chips from City residents, we would be unable to extract and work with the trace amounts.”

That was the moment at which three identical men in white tunics stepped around the nearer corner of the Centre building. Herald and Gavin were crossing open space and there was no cover; the Protectors saw them immediately. Moving as one, they lifted their arms and pointed in Gavin’s direction.

Run!” Herald cried, and demonstrated the method. It was all Gavin could do to keep up. They crossed the remaining metres in seconds and Gavin slapped his palm against the reader next to the great double doors. Ponderously they began to open, and amidst the thock! thock! thock! of gunfire, Gavin and Herald dashed inside.

“That was close,” Gavin panted, unaccustomed to exertion.

Herald put his back to the wall and slid down until he was sitting. “They were Protectors,” he said. “Protectors don’t miss.” His grey shirt was slowly going black as blood sheeted down his chest. “Go on,” he said. “Last chance. Take off… shirt. Protectors… won’t follow you… ”

Gavin left his grey overshirt behind him as he moved deeper into the building. Behind him came the terrible sounds of the Protectors reaching Herald; programmed to immediately destroy anyone not showing their colours of allegiance, they were brutal in their efficiency. The path into the building was straight as an arrow and without turn-offs; the sounds receded quickly as Gavin followed the corridor to its end, silver doors flanking another elevator shaft.

This carriage rode up and up endlessly, but Gavin was used to that by now. Eventually it came to a halt, and the doors opened onto a large room. In the centre of the chamber stood an obelisk of obsidian, inlaid with an intricate pattern of circuitry in golden copper.

A soothing voice filled the air, higher pitched than any man he’d ever heard; it was disturbing, but also somehow pleasing. “Welcome, citizen. Have you come to adjust the running parameters?”

The words were strange but he divined their meaning. “I have,” he called.

“Ready,” said the voice. “Please indicate preferred colour.”

This was it. The moment his life had been building towards. He brought the heavy hammer out from behind his back and advanced on the obelisk. Standing over it, at the centre of all he had ever known, he couldn’t bring himself to swing the weapon. An hour ago he had been a mere worker; now he held the fate of the City in his hands. It was too much responsibility, he didn’t want it. He choked back a laugh, a strange kind of hysteria overcoming him.

“Chartreuse,” he said. “Orange. Cyan. Turquoise. Brown! Blue! Charcoal! Green! Yellow! Red! Vermilion!”

“Yellow accepted,” said the voice. “Altering parameters. All uniform repositories set to yellow.”

He was struck with a sudden horrible certainty: his dresser now containing nothing but yellow. By this time tomorrow, nobody would own a pink tunic. He had brought the experiment to its conclusion. He had damned them all. “No!” he shouted. “Pink! I want pink!” But his words met with no response. In sudden rage, he lifted the hammer high, about to bring it down on the obelisk, the object of his torment. As the hammer reached its apogee, however, he reconsidered. The controller was a dumb machine, and it was only doing what he had told it to.

And yellow was such a nice colour after all. He let the hammer fall back to his side. What was the problem? Everyone should be yellow. It was logical. Yellow made them stronger, and faster, and better.

He had to get home, back to his residence. He was just a worker, and the City would go on, and his next shift was in twelve hours, and he was happy in yellow.

Written in response to Flash Fiction Challenge: “Roll for your title” on TerribleMinds.

For those who might be interested, the human brain processes ideas and decisions in a similar way to the Controller – by generating possible options and systematically suppressing them until only one remains. See

A crack in the sky


There’s a crack in the sky tonight, and through it I can see the stars.

I’d like to run down the hill and tell Katje. We sometimes lay down side by side and watch the stars, and later leads on to other pleasurable pastimes. But it would be a waste of time tonight; by the time we returned, the crack would have been sealed. Besides, there’s no guarantee that Katje is at her grandmother’s tonight.

So I just lie here on my back and stare up at the sky, watching the tiny dots flittering around it, almost too small to see. These are the vehicles, so we are told, of the gods, repairing the damage our lack of faith has wrought. Our own foolishness would lead to our destruction, as the incessant war of the gods would flood our land with unbearable power when next the conflict approaches. But the gods are loving and merciful and they continually save us from the unbelief of ourselves.

The stars, we are told, are the homes of the gods. They shine with the light of millions of millions of our deities, separated from us only by the width of the gauzy curtain of the sky. Yet… In the Book the stars are spoken of differently.

Am I allowed to speak of the Book? Nobody has told me, but of course nobody but Kylar has authority to read it. Of all the twenty of us Scribes, trainees and masters, I alone have been chosen to bear the extra burden. Yet I have had no chance to speak to Kylar, save a brief word at the ceremony of Bestowal. Rumours abound that Kylar is ill and that I will be thrust into a position of leadership far more quickly than I would wish, but how can I be expected to lead the people if I have been told no more than they? As for the Book, it is filled with things I cannot understand and cannot reconcile with what I am told by the Elders.



Hmph. Thought I heard someone up here. What’s your name, boy? You’re a long way from home.


Kevan looked up sharply. Automatically his left forefinger tuned the microphone sensitivity up a few notches.

“My name is Kevan,” he said. “Scribe and Guide elect.”

The Messenger shrugged his cloak onto the ground and sat on it. He nodded, silver hair blowing in the gentle breeze. “Heard of you,” he said shortly. “What do you see?”

Kevan shifted uncomfortably. But it was a familiar enough question. The scribes in training were asked it innumerable times by the Elders, until it became second nature to describe everything to their Recorders. “I see a hillside dotted with trees, their crowns bending to let the wind pass where it might. I see the light from our homes some three miles distant, a flickering glow in the dimness of the plain. I see the sky being repaired and the wrath of the Gods being sealed out.”

The Messenger harrumphed. “You make a good scribe,” he said. “Very poetic.”

“Thank you,” said Kevan. He wasn’t at all certain he should be talking to the Messenger without the presence of an Elder. But as Guide elect he had to start dealing with things himself.

They sat in silence for a moment, watching the vehicles at work, sealing the crack in the sky. Then Kevan cleared his throat softly. “The Elders tell us,” he said finally, “that you came from beyond the sky to bring us news of the Gods. Of how the war goes.”

Kevan waited to see if the Messenger would warn him off the topic. He didn’t. He continued to stare at the sky, but Kevan was certain he was listening.

“We hear also,” he went on, “that you may speak only to Kylar. But Kylar, it is said, is too ill to listen, much less respond.”

“Rumours,” said the Messenger dismissively.

“They are incorrect, then?” Kevan asked. The Messenger did not reply.

“Messengers have come to us every three centuries,” Kevan continued. “Each time during a period of great peril, grave danger to the People. Each time disaster has been averted only by immediate action by the Guide. So much is in our history.”

The Messenger said nothing. His body language bespoke some inner emotion, of anger or amusement. Kevan wished he knew which.

Kevan paused. He didn’t wish to be too direct. The Elders would hear the Recording and he was not beyond their censorious reach. But he had a responsibility, one which he had not asked for but which had devolved to him anyhow.

“The Elders are inflexible,” he said carefully. “They insist that while Kylar lives he retains immutable rights. Yet if he is incapable of Guiding the people…”

The Messenger turned his head and his eyes glowed in the darkness. “You are Guide elect,” he said.

Kevan nodded. “I am.”

“How much have you read of the Book?”

Kevan froze. He was not allowed to talk of the book to anyone but the Guide. And yet… the Guide was unable to respond to his questioning. And now the Messenger’s eyes were burning with sudden intensity as he stared directly at Kevan.

“Some,” he whispered eventually, dropping his eyes. He felt shamed. He felt that he was betraying his people. The Elders had told him that he had a responsibility, to know more than it was wise for people to know. Even the Elders did not know what it was that he was not allowed to speak of.

The Messenger seemed impatient. “Don’t go like that, young man,” he said. “The book comes to you from beyond the sky. As do I. From the Gods… such as they may be.”

Kevan suddenly didn’t want to hear. He’d pressed too hard and now was hearing too much. So this was what the Elders had meant. But they had also said that he was never to shirk his responsibility.

The Messenger, however, had turned uncommunicative again.

After a while Kevan spoke again. “The sky is almost sealed,” he said.

The Messenger hmmed noncommitally.

“Is our unbelief so great?” Kevan asked.

The Messenger stared at him, suddenly uncertain. “So great as what?”

“The shield of the sky,” said Kevan, “is broken by our unbelief. Yet these breaks are much more common now than ever before. Has our unbelief progressed to the point where we require a Messenger to remind us of the true faith? Is that why you are here?”

The Messenger turned away, stared at the trees below. “Tell me about the Book,” he said.

Kevan paused again before answering. When he spoke, his voice was barely audible. “It speaks of a multitude of worlds,” he said. “It says the stars are simple light sources, nothing more. It says that we are not the only People in the universe. All of these things are denied by the Elders, by our very faith. I alone question.” Kevan stared at the Messenger, eyes suddenly bleak. “It’s me, isn’t it? The unbelief that breaks the sky. It’s mine. And you have come to convince me of the folly of my ways.”

The Messenger leapt to his feet, clutched at his temples as if struck by pain he could not bear. Kevan shied away from the sudden violent movement. Had he gone too far? Had he in his ignorance doomed the People he was destined to Guide?

The Messenger stared at the sky, face distorted with sudden rage. “I will not!” he shouted. “I can no longer be a party to this!”

“You cannot fight the Gods,” Kevan said. It was one of the few parts of his faith of which he was sure.

The Messenger suddenly rounded on Kevan, causing the scribe to shy backwards further still. “What do you know of Gods?” he snarled. “The Gods are a committee of half-senile old men who should have learned their lessons by now.” His next remark was aimed as much to the sky as Kevan. “It’s all falling apart, and they can’t see it!”

Kevan was, for the first time in his life, at a loss for words. How could a Messenger suddenly spout blasphemy? It went against every grain of the faith. Yet what the Messenger was saying bore the ring of truth, incomprehensible as it was.

As suddenly as it had appeared the anger was gone, and the Messenger suddenly seemed like a tired old man himself, though he could hardly be fifty years of age.

The Messenger sat down on his cloak again. He stared straight ahead as he addressed Kevan.

“Scribe and Guide-elect, let me tell you a story,” he said. “The Gods, in their infinite wisdom, decided to build a society of peaceful farmers. They supplied… magical items to make life easier. They built the sky over this group of people to protect them from harm and to isolate them from the rest of the universe. They gave them a unified language, a societal system which would produce no ill effects. Their aim was to produce a utopian society, a world where everyone had all they needed, where evil could never flourish. A heaven of sorts, if you will.”

“Heaven?” asked Kevan, unsettled by the unfamiliar word. The Messenger ignored the interruption and continued his story.

“The Gods succeeded in their aim,” he said. “Their vision of a utopian culture was fulfilled. A culture with no evil, no wants, no sickness.”

“Our culture,” Kevan said softly, recognising the Canto of his own faith.

“Your culture,” agreed the Messenger. As he spoke his voice became harsher, more violent. “A culture with no struggling. No fighting. No change. No progress. And so you live with a part of you missing, something that’s been absent so long you can no longer tell the difference!”

Kevan jumped to his feet, turned away, tears springing to his eyes. “Is this why you have come? To torment me with things I cannot understand, that I dare not even contemplate?”

“It’s not your fault,” said the Messenger. “It’s far more my responsibility. I have allowed myself to go along with their plans, with their machinations. I allowed myself to be sent here, to renew your people’s faith, to check on your society’s health. While my people renew the shield that keeps you isolated from any influences which might encourage you to think!”

Kevan didn’t turn around. The Messenger was toying with him and all he wanted was to flee to the town for shelter. But he wouldn’t give the Messenger the satisfaction of seeing him run.

Before he had taken three steps the Messenger called out to him again. Kevan paused.

“Read the Book,” the Messenger said. “But read this also.”

Reluctantly Kevan turned, and felt another pillar of his world crumble. The Messenger was holding out… it was another Book. A similar leather cover protected the pages within, of a different shade to the leather he knew so well. There were other Books.

Kevan stepped forward slowly and took hold of the gift. But the Messenger didn’t release it immediately. Instead he stared into Kevan’s eyes as they held the ends of the book. A strange mental tug of war, and Kevan knew he was hopelessly outclassed.

“You are a free person,” said the Messenger. “A book… is just words. Sometimes the words reflect a vision, but at best they can only be a guide. What I give you now has no higher meaning than to open your mind to other possibilities.”

Kevan stared at him, again uncomprehending. The Messenger ignored the appeal in his eyes and continued talking.

“Tell the Elders that I have left to return to the Gods,” he said. “The sky is intact once more.” He let go of the new Book. Kevan felt as if he’d been leaning backwards on a rope and the weight had suddenly been taken off the other end. He almost staggered with the sudden relief.

The Messenger stood and shrugged himself back into his cloak, removing a sealed scroll as he did so. He held up the scroll. “This formally ratifies you as Guide for the People,” he said. “No other Guide has been so blest. I suggest you don’t waste this honour. You have the support of the Gods. Don’t be afraid…” the Messenger turned as he spoke, so his sentence was almost lost in the wind. “…to make changes.”

And with no further word he walked away down the hill, becoming lost to sight within the trees only moments later.

Kevan stared at the scroll at his feet, sealed with a red ribbon sash. He was tempted to bury it, give up the responsibility of Guiding the people, walk away into the forest and forget everything he knew. But he dared not.

Instead he looked at the Book in his hand. It felt strange to hold a Book outside the protected environs of the Learning Rooms. The lettering on the front cover made little sense to him. Brave New World. He considered just leaving it here. Perhaps he wouldn’t be able to understand it; perhaps his faith need not be challenged by it. Perhaps he could go on with life as if this night had never happened. Overhead, the stars were dull patches of light on the unbroken sky. All was well with the world.

From the direction of the village came a single forlorn horn note. Sounding for the death of Guide Kylar. It was soon joined with a chorus of other horns, the sombre music sounding strangely thin from this distance and in this wind.

Holding the scroll in one hand and the new Book in the other Kevan began to make his way down the hill.

The Last Year

That July morning, it snowed. Naturally, we took the kids outside. At twelve and nine, they’d never seen snow. It was almost as magical for Alice and myself as it was for them; we’d begun to think we’d never see snow again, and snow in New York during high summer was about as likely as a cactus in Antarctica.

But of course, that was the old world. All the rules had changed.

For me, it was wonderful to watch Alexa and Josh delighting in the slush, throwing snowballs, and building snowmen (the snow was too watery to hold its shape, and the best effort they could manage was Alexa’s mound of dirty snow with a stick poking haphazardly out the top.) But Alice, in my peripheral vision, was a sour note. Her eyes were sad as she watched. Without turning to me, she said softly, “You can’t fix it, can you?”

With that, the joy was gone. “No,” I said. “I don’t think we can.”


My office in the Climate Engineering building of the Directorate was a knot of calm and silence amidst constant noise and motion. Around me people were packing up their desks, cardboard boxes proliferating like tribbles; the whole building must have deprived Central Park of a good half of its accommodation. The activity was constant and remorseless, but subdued; I didn’t see a single smile.

Craig caught me on the way in. “Did you hear? They’ve withdrawn funding. They’re shutting us down.”

“I know,” I said. It figured; we’d tried everything we could and few that we couldn’t and we hadn’t made a lick of difference. It didn’t help that there was a strong impression in Congress that we were directly responsible for the death of the climate. Hardly surprising. They weren’t wrong. The media had taken to calling it “Howell’s Ice Age” and even Howell’s suicide hadn’t done much to clear his tarnished image.

Jason Howell – JH as he had liked to be called – had been my boss, the head of the Climate Engineering department. His departure from the scene had left me as the most senior official and secured my immediate future; I was about the only employee not laid off, and that was only so they could ensure I would be around to face the inevitable Congress inquiry. If that ever happened. Effective head of the Climate Engineering department, without a department to manage.

“OK,” said Craig, “but do you know where the money’s going now? They’re fast-tracking Project Noah.”

My first reaction to this was to think that it was crazy, like aliens-in-Wyoming crazy, but these were not times for sanity. I nodded. “I should be surprised,” I said. “I haven’t seen that announced.”

“No announcements,” said Craig. “They’re keeping it on the quiet. I heard through someone my wife knows.” That also made sense. Project Noah, at its very most ambitious, wouldn’t be able to save more than a few thousand people. But if Craig knew about it, then you could bet that half of America would know by next week. That kind of news doesn’t stay secret for long.


Half of America did not know by the next week. Craig and his wife went on a long holiday to the Caribbean without so much as tweeting it first. Some other souls, more cynical than mine, might have suspected that their impromptu trip went a bit further than Jamaica, but that summer it seemed that a lot of people decided to head south. The conspiratorial underbelly of the internet caught on to the disappearances but in all the buzz the news of project Noah seemed to sink without a trace.

Jamaica was one of the few places left where there was still any kind of sun; an anaemic, watered-down sun, but enough to give a little warmth. The tourism authorities were having a field day: “The last resort of the sun”, “Summer’s last refuge”, that kind of thing. It says something either funny or sad about human nature that even whilst the world was ending, people were still trying to make money. Whilst the memory of warmth was a nice thought, I could think of better ways to spend my time than to try to squeeze into the tropical islands along with half of the rest of the human race. Nine billion people, all standing on a piece of ground slightly smaller than Connecticut.

Except that it wasn’t nine billion people by then. By mid-August, just about everything north of sixty degrees was frozen. Those who could escape went south, and escape they did, in their millions; but for many, they never had a chance. Residents of civilized countries like Sweden and Greenland, and half of Canada, holders of first-world privilege who never expected to be the ones to suffer, had either starved or frozen in their icy homes. Not that the rest of the world was faring much better. It was no more than eight months since Project Glass had been prematurely aborted, and a single lost season of growth was hardly going to plunge the globe into starvation, but two years, three, and we would be in real trouble. Hence the rationing, hence the death-spiral of food prices, hence the food riots.


In October I was finally called before an emergency sitting of Congress. I didn’t know exactly what to expect from it; I’d never sat at the rarefied heights before. JH had never been a scientist or an engineer, but he had been a born administrator, and he had always been the figurehead of the Directorate. I’d never even set foot in Washington; I once promised to take the kids to the White House but work got in the way and we never went. By October air travel was pretty much impossible, so I had to take the fast train down; what had previously been a three-hour trip took closer to six hours, with stops every few miles to clear snow and ice from the tracks.

Despite the almost-freezing conditions street-side, the Capitol building was kept warm, doubtless at huge cost; in view of the situation I guess peak oil had ceased being a consideration. I was nervous as hell while I stood outside the House Chamber waiting my turn. The diplomat guide-cum-guard who’d been assigned to me was unsympathetic.

We were met in the antechamber by Willard Harvey; secretary of the Department of Primary Industry, I’d met him several times. He and JH had gotten along famously; to me, he was like a kindly uncle. Now he greeted me warmly enough, then pulled me close. “They’ve pretty much agreed to pin everything on JH,” he said. “You’ll get through this OK, if you play it right.”

“Does it matter?” I asked.

“Think about your kids,” he said. “The human race will survive this. We always do. In the future, people will remember project Glass. You don’t want your kids to grow with that kind of shame to their name, do you?”

I shook my head. I wasn’t sure my kids were going to get the chance to grow up, but I certainly didn’t want that.

Then, sotto voce, he gave me the best advice I’ve ever received. “I suggest you tell them exactly what they expect to hear.”

So I did.


I didn’t sleep well the next few nights after that. It may have been JH’s signature on the orders, but it was my department that came up with the details and the implementation of Glass; it was on my say-so that we’d gone ahead. Even then I’d known there was only a fifty-fifty chance of complete success; we just miscalculated the direction of the error. I spent much of the next few nights sitting in the kids’ bedrooms watching them sleep, unable to exorcise the demons of guilt in my gut.

But a conscience is a resilient thing and life went on. Despite the conclusion of the emergency sitting, nobody got around to closing down the Climate Engineering department, so I kept getting paid. I’d stopped actually going to the office weeks ago, but nobody cared.

In November, they decommissioned two thirds of the army. For a couple of days it was the lead story on the news bulletins still operating, flickering long-range video of thousands of rifles being dumped into pits and topped with concrete. At the time, I didn’t see why they bothered. It wasn’t like the government needed to save money for the future.

In December the reasons became clear.


The human race was busy indeed during those last few months. China put a colony on Mars. Rumour had it that Japan had gotten there six weeks earlier; scuttlebutt insisted that there was a shooting war going on up there. I wasn’t sure if I believed it then, and I still don’t. The middle east was at war, exploding into a furious excoriation of violence late in the year, as if a dozen countries were desperate to get out their long-held enmities before the inevitable rapture.

It was in December that the government announced what some had already suspected. Congress had fast-tracked a half dozen different projects, spending like there was no tomorrow. Project Noah was one of those announced, but it was barely a footnote. Project Methuselah sounded hare-brained to me; I no more believed that people could be safely preserved in cryogenics than I believed that Walt Disney and Elvis Presley were alive and well and living in Michigan. Project Compound was much more likely; gigantic plastic-and-metal habitat domes built out in the middle of nowhere, stuffed with hydroponics and artificial lighting, powered by great nuclear furnaces to be built at long distances. Due for completion by the middle of the next year, at least it seemed to me to have potential. And yes, the US was going to put colonies on Mars and the moon as well.

Participation in these projects would be by a combination of selection on merit, and a lottery to end all lotteries. With the army reduced in advance to those who had already been selected for participation, the US went into the strictest martial law possible.

By then Alice’s parents were living with us. They’d moved south from Boston in mid-November, succumbing to punishing power and food costs. My own parents were still in Portland, and I’d lost touch with them in September. I’d heard that there had been a lot of brown-outs over there, with people freezing overnight when their heating failed. I had to assume that they were gone.

I’d never liked them much anyway.


In February two square young men turned up on our doorstep and escorted me to the government car awaiting me at the curb. Apparently they’d gone via my office and were none too pleased to find it cold and abandoned. “I’ll be home soon,” I told Alice and the kids, hoping to hell that I wasn’t going to be proved a liar.

I was eventually ushered into a small office in one of the government’s innumerable buildings downtown. I didn’t know what I was expecting, but when I saw Willard Harvey sitting behind the desk, that was certainly not it.

“We’re offering you a place in Project Noah,” he told me without preamble. “How much do you know about Noah?”

“They’re calling it a generation ship,” I replied. “Designed to be in flight for hundreds of years between star systems. I heard it’s going to go to Alpha Centauri for exploration and possible colonisation.”

“Potentially, thousands of years,” said Harvey. “Hundreds of years is best-case scenario. There’s really no guarantees at all, least of all that Alpha Centauri will be suitable.”

“The crew will live and die in space,” I continued. “Have babies, keep the ship going.” I was no evolutionary geneticist, but I knew a little about populations. “You’ll need thousands of people.”

“Close to ten thousand,” Harvey agreed. “We’d like you to be one of them.”

“Why me?”

Harvey tapped the desk in front of him, a thick bound folder I hadn’t even noticed. “We’ve been doing our homework,” he said. “There’s a lot of considerations. Health. Expertise. We’ll be needing atmospheric engineers and climatologists when the ship arrives at any destination. You’re one of the best, and more importantly, you’ve written books and you’ve run lectures. It’s not just your knowledge we’re after, it’s your ability to teach.”

“You must have thousands of climatologists to choose from,” I said.

“True,” he replied, “but since Congress determined that JH was solely responsible for the mess of Glass, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be you. There’s more to it, of course. Your genetic make-up is disparate enough to be a positive contributor to the overall gene pool we’re trying to preserve.”

“My genes?” I asked, surprised.

He shrugged. “Every government employee has a blood sample taken as part of their standard medical. What are you, one quarter Chinese?”

“My grandparents were Chinese,” I admitted.

“We can’t promise you a comfortable life, nor a safe one. But you’ll be doing something worthwhile, and you’ll be valued.”

“I’ll need time to think about it,” I said. That was an understatement.

“You have twenty-four hours,” Harvey said. “But I have one more thing for you to consider. This offer’s for you personally. And I do mean you: just you. Not your family. Not your friends. Probably not anybody you’ve ever met.” He took off his glasses and polished them on his sleeve. “Hell of a thing to ask, I know, but you’re first on our list in our models.”


I didn’t go straight home. I had a lot to think about, so I turned my collar up against the cold and I walked the city streets, kicking my way through snow. In the end I made my way home, and stood across the street, just gazing at the glowing windows and the vague shapes that moved behind the drapes. And I made my decision.


It was the sixth of March when I left home for the last time. I lied to Alice, telling her I was heading for an unspecified appointment in the office. I’d barely been back there for months and I’m not sure she entirely believed me, but she didn’t say anything. Perhaps she had already suspected something; I’d done my best to act normally for the past few weeks, but it’s hard to keep secrets from someone you live with.

That morning I got up early and spent some time standing in the doorway to the kids’ room. Saying goodbye. But I couldn’t linger.

I had done my best for them. I’d negotiated a place for them all – Alice, Alexa, Josh, even Alice’s parents – in one of the biodomes. They would be OK. They’d probably have a more comfortable life than I was committed to.

The Ark had been built in orbit, and the crew were being shuttled up to it. Ten thousand people, on a spaceship half the size of Manhattan. The scope of it beggared belief. Powered by a combination of nuclear engines, ram scoops and solar sails, the engineers had pulled out all the stops. Frankly, most of that is well outside my area of expertise.

Ten thousand people. Drawn from all walks of life, as varied a racial background as could be arranged, and bonded together with a single purpose. Destined to live and die in the cold expanses of space, with only the most tenuous hope of survival, our only immediate priorities being to record and pass on our knowledge – and to breed.

Most of the massive craft was built without windows, and I had no chance to see the Earth as we left it behind. I wondered what Alice would think if she could see me.


Nature doesn’t approve of stillness. Humanity has survived where other species became extinct, time after time, eon after eon, because we kept moving. We move to keep ahead of the climate, of the predators, of the volcano and the tides and anger of a vengeful planet.

I’m sure the biodomes will survive for a good many years. I hope – I pray – that Alexa and Josh have long lives, productive lives, and that they’re as happy as might be reasonably expected. But nothing that mankind builds can last thousands of years. The sulfide aerosols we put into the atmosphere, that turned Earth into the inside of a silver-foil balloon, were designed to be non-reactive. It might be hundreds of years before the sky started to clear once more. I hope that the biodomes will still be standing by then, that my descendants will one day be able to emerge onto a planet as it wakes from the long winter. But I don’t think they will.

The main reason that I left them behind – my wife, my children, my life – the straightforward justification is simple.

We must never make these mistakes again.

Written in response to a writing prompt from Today’s Author
The prompt was as follows:

That July morning, it snowed.

This one took a while!

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